It would be unfair to compare singer/songwriter Matt Rodela to Dave Matthews, although that influence is easily apparent, especially on the “Crash Into Me”-like acoustic embrace of “Thinking of You.” If Matthews were to have merged with Elvis Costello and then fronted Chicago, that would be accurate. In the hands of a lesser artist, such an odd group of musical inspiration probably wouldn’t work. However, Rodela manages to stitch together his equal affection for jam bands, smooth jazz, and adult alternative rock into a cohesive and engaging package.
The stirring trumpets on the opening track, “Better Days,” recall vintage Chicago immediately, simply because horns were an integral part of their sound and we haven’t been hearing them on rock & roll records for decades now. But Rodela’s funky guitar riffs take them out of the easy-listening chamber they eventually got locked into. Furthermore, Rodela’s voice has an edge to it, much gruffer than the crystalline tenor of Peter Cetera. There are times when Rodela sounds eerily like Costello, especially on the post-breakup sneer of “Look Away.”
Rodela’s combination of the hard and soft is a key component in his style. On “I’ll Remember You,” Rodela’s brittle acoustic guitars in the intro subsequently give way to sizzling electric riffs. However, this isn’t a Nirvana-ish loud/quiet seesaw; Rodela employs a more subtle approach. One of the best cuts on the album is “SWM,” which finds Rodela searching for true love on the Internet. Rodela surprisingly tips his feet into hip-hop here or at least the quirky folk rap of Beck and G. Love and Special Sauce.
For a debut album, this is a remarkably self-confident and filler-free affair.
When director Christopher Nolan is asleep, the music that plays in his subconscious is probably not unlike Sean Jefferson’s Dreamworks. A drummer/composer from Rochester, New York, Jefferson is signed to Wycliffe Gordon’s label Bluesback Records. While performing with the Grammy-nominated Paradigm Shift, Jefferson decided to record a solo album, one in which his distinct and somewhat edgy vision could be fully unveiled. The result is a trippy, challenging, and yet somehow accessible record.
Opening with disorienting clanging, “Half Past Twilight” captures the surreal landscapes between sleeping and waking up. Jefferson’s drums are tribal in their savage march, reflecting the ominous allure of nightmares as well as the hypnotic transcendence of sweet dreams. A cover of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” builds mood and character as Richie Goods’ bass slowly creeps into the mix and Marcus Strickland’s sax soars into the subconscious.
Dreamworks can be viewed as a concept album, albeit one without words. Nearly all of the song titles reflect the references to sleeping and waking that are established by the record’s name. To achieve this, Jefferson and his group weave spells of instrumental complexities and soothing textures, often in the same tracks. For example, in “Living this Dream,” Strickland’s sax seduces the ear with its lush tones while Jefferson’s hearty drums and Goods’ deeply probing bass propel the groove to a more frenzied tempo. “Eternal Light” begins with a hushed prettiness conjured by Strickland’s sax, only to have that moment of tranquility disturbed by the kinetic energy brought upon by his fellow musicians.
“Awakening” is suitably titled. Crestfallen minor-key piano welcomes the waking mind, but Strickland’s peaceful soprano sax is threatened by Jefferson’s uneasy drumming, eventually turning the world in disarray, and leaving the premises with a chilly rattle. Jefferson paints a picture of the real world as one not too different from the extraterrestrial planes of the brain, where order exists within clouds of confusion.
On After the Rain, the Australian composer tosses away smooth jazz conventions for a stunning display of stylistic liberation, touching on soul, Brazilian, world, and even drum and bass influences. The only constant is Albare’s crystalline guitar playing, remaining chill and translucent no matter how the backgrounds shift to color his ever-changing moods. On “Mystery,” Albare’s guitar spins webs of incandescent melody as the thumping backbeat, especially the ominous throb of his bass, recalls the enigmatic iciness of Massive Attack.
Most American smooth jazz is nearly narcoleptic in its structure and production, making it fair game as commercial radio and background music for young urban professionals. Albare avoids its sterile confines, balancing the yin and yang of easy and uneasy listening. “Funny Clounds” is fairly boisterous with its clacking rhythms, but Albare’s guitar is pure silky softness. Likewise, the lush acoustic prettiness in Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” is in contrast to the strings’ shuffling march.
“Sweet Thing” deepens the emotional weight of the album with its soulful textures. In fact, soul has become the lost ingredient in much contemporary smooth jazz, which has become too reliant on dull studio polish than real feeling. Albare’s guitar playing in “Sweet Thing” is clearly moved by romance — not necessarily by a relationship, but the idea of romance itself and its usual trimmings: evening walks in the park, candlelit dinners, and kissing beneath an ocean of stars. His passion is felt in every note that falls at his fingertips like a nighttime shower. The best cut on the album is the title track itself, and it’s no surprise that Albare selected this piece to name the whole project. Rob Burke’s sultry saxophone takes Albare’s equally smitten guitar for a slow dance, and together they create a mood of unguarded affection that moves the heart as well as stimulates the mind with a breathtaking sense of wonder.
Waking up Pee-wee Herman can be a difficult task, just ask Terry Carleton. For the past few years, the singer/songwriter/producer has been trying to get Herman’s attention with “Good Morning, Mr. Breakfast,” a bouncy slice of jangly Brit pop that is perfectly suited for Paul Reubens’ next “Big Adventure,” should it ever be filmed. After hibernating in Carleton’s studio, the track finally made its way onto college and NPR stations this summer. However, Herman still remains elusive, but Carleton hopes that he will finally hear a song created in tribute to him. Carleton explains the reasons for this madness to Ink 19.
When did you come up with the idea of writing a song for Pee-wee Herman?
Just trying to find something interesting to write about. I have more music in my head than lyrics. My friend, Marina Towers, suggested that I write about something I love so I chose Pee-wee. She actually took notes for me.
On average, how many songs do you write a week?
I would ask the question like this: How many songs can you write a week? When I’m asked to write for a band or for an event, I can snap them out fast, one or maybe even two a day. But left to my own devices, I co-write with others so much that I let my own music kind of get sidelined. That being said, I write about a song a month. Some just pour out of my head, while some I struggle with for months.
How long have you been a musician? What triggered this interest?
Apparently since birth. As a little kid, I would run into roadside diners and hug the jukebox. No one else in my family played music or sang so I’m not sure why or how I caught the bug, but I’ve been playing drums, guitar, and singing in bands, non-stop, since I was 10 years old.
The influence of Todd Rundgren and XTC is fairly obvious in your work. What qualities did they have which particularly attracted you?
Those two artists are two of my most favorite, and they may not agree with my assessment of their considerable and vast talents, but I have to feel that they were influenced, the same way I was, by the Beatles. I hear the Beatles in a lot of their writings, and if one of their songs doesn’t necessarily “sound” like the Beatles, it nonetheless makes me “feel” like I do when listening to the Beatles.
When did you become a producer?
I became a producer, like most, when I got my first 4-track recorder. I would bet that a lot of producers started out as musicians who were just trying to record their own music on the cheap, know what I mean? As such, you learn a lot about the dynamics and mechanics of music. What you learn on your little 4-track with your own music can be applied to other people’s music on a much nicer gear, which is now where I find myself. I see myself as a musician, writer, then producer, and in that order. But, really, it’s all so connected.
Would you say that your other work stylistically fits with “Good Morning, Mr. Breakfast,” or is this a departure for you?
Terry Carleton as Bob Hope
It’s something of a departure for me. I write about what I know and feel. My song “Guitars” that I co-wrote with Andy Latimer of the great British progressive-rock band, Camel, is about my guitar collection. I have written songs about joy and great sorrow; “Grey Day” is about the weather in Seattle and the passing of Kurt Cobain so, like most writers, some happy, some sad, life, and death. I do, however, take great joy in writing instrumentals. I was commissioned to write for a circus in my home town of San Jose called, Cirque San Jose. Being very much inspired by Cirque Du Soleil, I wrote music for three seasons (almost 60 pieces of music in three years). I played all the instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keys, and vocals) and recorded it all in my studio. Being a very joyous event — hey, it’s the circus, right? — there was a lot of the lightness, compositionally, that you might hear in “Good Morning, Mr. Breakfast.”
As a producer, how involved artistically do you become with another musician’s songs? Are you more of a collaborative producer, since you are a songwriter yourself?
Definitely, I lean more towards being the collaborative type of producer, but I don’t insist on it. Some artists know exactly what they want and how to get it. At that point, I’m happy to be an engineer and/or a session musician. But being a multi-instrumentalist and singer, when given the opportunity for a co-write or collaboration, I jump at it. That is my element, writing, feeling, and using whatever tools I have in my studio or imagination, to make the song reach its full light.
How long have you had your studio? How has it evolved over the years in terms of the technology that you are utilizing?
I have had a studio that I affectionately call Bones and Knives for about 20 years. Other than a few drums and maybe a mic or two, in that time period I have completely changed all of my gear and recording formats at least three times. I started out as an 8-track analog studio and now have a hybrid format that, while the music gets stored in its final stage as digital WAV files, the process is mostly analog — lots of vacuum tubes and 40-year-old technology. So I get the best of old-tech sounds, mixed with the insanely modern conveniences of the new digital tools. Ana-Dig? Dig-alog?
What genres do you generally work with?
Pretty much everything, but I probably am best at catering to the singer/songwriters.
How did you go from being an artist to a producer? Or were you interested in producing first?
Well, I’ve always had a hand in arranging the songs in the various bands I’ve been in over the years and pretty much taken that interest into the studio. I became more of a producer when I started engineering for other people and it would always come down to the classic question. After a playback, the band would turn to me and ask, “Terry? What do you think?” I am reminded of the joke, “How many producers does it take to change a light bulb? I don’t know, what do you think?”
Pink Floyd never died; they simply moved to Amsterdam.
For Pink Floyd purists, the cult of few who feel that their Syd Barrett days are the only entries in their discography worthy of serious discussion, the Legendary Pink Dots have filled that psychedelic void for 30 years. Because of their relative obscurity, the Pink Dots have been sadly below the radar of Barrett’s devoted followers. Robyn Hitchcock may have gotten the “next Barrett” tag during his college-radio reign of the ’80s, but as whacked-out as his most adventuresome material was, the Pink Dots probed deeper into acid-washed rock. In fact, the Pink Dots leader Edward Ka-Spel picked up where Barrett left off, updating his brain-damaged folk by embracing the ambient electronics of krautrock, the oppressive gloom of Goth, and the existential angst of post-punk.
Like The Fall, the Pink Dots have kept to their singular, uncompromising vision into middle age. “Russian Roulette” is trademark Pink Dots: slow, glacial synthesizers; minimalist beats, and Ka-Spel’s detached, deranged mad-scientist vocals. It almost recalls the spare, icy grimness of Wire but minus the loud, angular guitars. The clock-ticking rhythms of “Endless Time” find Ka-Spel in a rare melodic mood and it’s the only track on the album that could possibly be marketed as a single. Elsewhere, the Pink Dots peel away layers of atmospheric dread, especially on the closing “Ascension,” which is over 13 minutes of synthesized bleakness.
When Ka-Spel’s black-planet outlook clicks, which it often does, as on “Hauptbahnhof 20:10,” the effect is hypnotic and darkly seductive.
The Mississippi-bred duo Thompson Ward probably won’t be offended for being described as backwoods hicks; to them, their Southern roots are a badge of honor. On this ferociously energetic debut album, Thompson Ward channel the specters of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Black Oak Arkansas, reviving swampy boogie rock minus the irony of today’s young Americana acts on the indie scene. Named after vocalist Steve Thompson and multi-instrumentalist Bryan Ward, Thompson Ward freely bang together their diverse influences — namely classic rock, outlaw country, funk, and Gospel — and damn the consequences. However, the group’s genre mash-ups never feel forced or less than melodic.
The opening cut, an electrified cover of Jim Stafford’s 1973 hit, “Spiders and Snakes,” explodes from the gates with chunky power chords and large, echoing drums that escaped from a Def Leppard record. Thompson’s deep Southern drawl remains its negligible connection to country music. The exhilarating “Riverside” takes the band deeper into the funk of their album title. However, unlike other pretenders, Thompson Ward doesn’t sound like some pale, white-bread facsimile of the real thing. “Riverside” truly gets down as Ward’s slamming bass lines work up an intense sweat, eventually erupting into a volcanic jam near the end. It’s like getting drunk on whiskey while trying to ride a bull. “The Hump” pumps up the speakers with fuzzy Jimi Hendrix-like riffs while the raunchy “Stank” cuts loose with mud-splashed country rock.
Oddly enough, the two best tracks on the record stray from Thompson Ward’s formula. “Theresa” is a slow-burning romantic tune with the transcendent beauty of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” while “Missy Lynd” recalls the jangly simplicity of vintage Beatles and the Hollies. The Americana scene is already becoming stale with its constant barrage of beards and balladeers. With swagger and loud amps to spare, Thompson Ward arrives late to the party but will be the only thing that people are going to remember in the morning.
A man and his guitar. If one were to summarize the theme of this delicately crafted instrumental album, those would be the only words necessary. After all, nothing is spoken between Pacific Northwest musician John Williams (not to be confused with the legendary film composer) and his guitar. However, there are emotions expressed between them, an intimate conversation that is expressed with each warm pluck of the string. This is a record that can be savored in two different ways. Artists will be able to relate to the wordless give and take between Williams and his instrument. Williams has presented to the public what is often hidden from public view — a private, often introspective session between a man and his guitar. Williams plays the guitar without any acknowledgment of the outside world; he is baring his soul, letting his feelings guide his hands, oblivious to time. Aside from the propulsive riffs of the first track “Strait,” there are no easy, repetitive hooks on this album; it exists as a mood piece, one that should be experienced from beginning to end. In that regard, fellow guitarists will find much to relate to as Williams captures their own personal moments with the guitar, alone and away from the pummeling noise of everyday life.
On the other hand, for non-musicians Williams’s work here can be appreciated as a therapy piece or as a soundtrack to the tranquility of outdoor living. The lush playing on “Brown Island” and “Shaw Island” is hypnotic and soothing. Williams is reaching into the deepest recesses of the heart, conveying not just love but a sense of inner peace. To call this New Age might seem inaccurate because of how that genre is normally viewed as cold and soulless. Nevertheless, Williams’s compositions create that level of relaxed spirit that they are supposed to achieve.
That Williams is based in Washington State is no surprise. The overcast shades of “Wasp Passage” reflect the state’s rainy clouds, and images of the ocean and water in general are what the imagination consistently triggers as the record unfolds. The meditative “Speiden” is among the highlights contained within, a relatively long, epic journey that is awash in various shifts of tone. Williams describes this music as “Quiet Guitar,” but there’s no denying the weight of emotions that is carried by this fragile beauty.
In the cluttered jazz-vocal world, only a handful truly stand out, distinguishing themselves from their paint-by-numbers peers. In the genre’s need to be refined and faithful to its roots, too many play it safe, and the result is work that is marked by blandness. Sure, the technical aspects may be in place — all of the notes hit, the riffs played to perfection — but the lack of real emotional and creative sparks dull the effort down into wallpaper. Pippa Hayes is a remarkable exception.
Hailing from Australia, Hayes not only surrounds herself with a stellar backing band including internationally recognized trumpet player Bob Barnard, but she performs familiar jazz standards with an alluring soulfulness and youthful spunk. For example, Hayes projects both strength and sultriness on “Our Day Will Come,” reflecting the confident, steamy shuffle of the rhythm section. It’s one hell of an opener, immediately clutching the ears and being too irresistibly sweet to release. From that point, Hayes’s talent is apparent; the only question was her ability to sustain a record’s worth of material, to keep a tight reign on fickle attention spans.
From beginning to end, Hayes expresses different sides of her voice, from the playfulness of “Oh Lady Be Good” to the rainy-day melancholy of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” There is impressive range in her singing. Not only can she vividly reflect the feelings of the lyrics, but she does so with a painter’s eye for imagery. You can visualize the scenes in the songs; her vocals act like a camera in your imagination, unreeling black-and-white scenes photographed from the heart. “Nearness of You” aches with a slow, haunting dreaminess. On “Lullaby of Birdland,” Hayes takes flight, her voice lighter than air itself.
There’s a difference between simply covering a classic and making it your own. Hayes manages to achieve both here. Her renditions are true to the essence of these tunes. At the same time, Hayes injects them with her own personality and life experiences. It’s almost as if you’d never heard them before. You certainly haven’t heard them like this.
In-between two No. 1 hits — the incandescent summer glow of B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You” and the romantic swooning of his own “Just the Way You Are” — Bruno Mars’s record label Elektra decided to toss a bone to his hungry new followers. Like Mars himself, this four-track EP arrived without a glimmer of hype. In fact, the average Joe cranking Mars’s heart-melting croon on “Nothin’ on You” in his car probably wasn’t aware that it existed. This is, after all, a snack, something to tide hardcore fans over until the feast is ready — a full-length album that hopes to continue Mars’ seemingly quick conquest of fickle teenage ears. That Mars’ sweet, soulful voice recalls that of the late Michael Jackson is partially responsible for his success.
Whether people are aware of it or not, Mars’s vocal resemblance to MJ plugs into a subconscious longing to hear the Gloved One again in the same way that Bush and the Offspring blasted into the stratosphere after their hero Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Mars’s history of impersonating Jackson as a kid is no surprise; even in adulthood, Mars shares the innocent, boyish caress of Jackson’s voice. This can be heard in the opening cut, “Somewhere in Brooklyn.” With its childlike electronics and lost-love lyrics, Mars manages to capture Jackson’s adolescent naiveté and grown-up loneliness in the same track. However, it should be clarified that Mars is no Jackson imitator. In fact, Mars is perhaps more eclectic than Jackson ever was. Nevertheless, the similarities cannot be denied. The dreamy “The Other Side” is aptly titled, a dreamy reflection on mortality that features spiraling, sparkling guitars à la Coldplay. Cee Lo Green lends bluesy depth as Mars ventures into darker territory.
By the third tune, “Count on Me,” it becomes obvious that Mars has no stylistic restrictions. Freeing himself from the R&B influences that characterize his most popular work thus far, “Count on Me” is an acoustic-pop entry that would snugly fit into Jason Mraz’s discography. Saving the best for last, “Talking to the Moon” sounds like MJ fronting Coldplay (or Coldplay covering MJ as Mars’ soaring falsetto is equal to Chris Martin’s), sobbing piano exploding into an exhilarating, life-affirming chorus. It conjures the kind of magic that pop music isn’t supposed to anymore.
At first, it would seem that Cee Josephs is aiming for the sultry soulfulness of Anita Baker. On the first track, “What Am I Living For,” Josephs conveys a similarly bluesy ache in her vocal delivery, recalling Baker’s mid-’80s breakthrough. But Josephs’ concerns are not matters of the heart, at least in terms of romantic relationships. Her vehicle is Gospel, and her songs belong to a higher power. Nevertheless, most of Josephs’ tunes have crossover appeal, possessing an ability to reel in secular audiences with the heartfelt emotions expressed in her singing and the mainstream R&B pulse of her arrangements. Josephs’ unyielding devotion to her Christian faith inspires her voice to soar to transcendent heights on “What Am I Living For,” but that isn’t even the highlight. On “Break Me to Use Me,” Josephs’ vocals reach an operatic level, rocketing to high notes. That’s not something one would expect from a Gospel record, and it’s that freshness and unpredictability that distinguishes Josephs from her peers.
“Faith Hope Charity” veers completely away from traditional Gospel music with its tropical beat, equally fueled by reggae, world, and funk. Of all of Josephs’ songs, “Faith Hope Charity” has the most playful tone; celebratory and highly energetic, it is dance music for the church. “Behind the Door” and “Any Room,” on the other hand, are moving slow jams that focus on the rich beauty of Josephs’ voice. Jazzy horns bring color to “Time Out.” Probably the best cut on the CD is “I Do,” a stunningly pretty proclamation of religious devotion that balances hook-laden melodies with the depths of Josephs’ singing. Gospel has unfortunately gotten the “old people’s music” tag among much of the young, even with kids who purchase Christian albums by the truckload. Josephs, though, remains relevant and contemporary with her stylistic choices while being timeless with her message.